The global reach of the United States' military, and the Joint Special Operations Command in particular, was demonstrated again this weekend when a pair of highly publicized raids intended to capture terrorist masterminds in Africa were executed within hours of each other.
On Saturday, commandos from the Army's Delta Force successfully snatched Abu Anas al-Libi — an al Qaeda leader wanted for his involvement in the 1998 embassy bombings — off the streets of Tripoli, Libya, in a lightning raid. Earlier that day, SEAL Team Six operators assaulted a beachside villa in Barawe, Somalia, hoping to take key al Shabab figure "Ikrimah" alive. (They were forced to turn back following a protracted gunfight when it was determined that taking the target without killing him would be impossible.)
It wasn't the first time that Delta had been linked to actions in Libya, nor the first time that SEAL Team Six had played a major role in a confirmed operation in Somalia. For instance, before the discovery of Ambassador Christopher Stevens' body following the 2012 consulate attack in Benghazi, it was feared he had been taken hostage. A Delta Force squadron was mobilized in hopes of launching a rescue mission inside Libya.
Meanwhile, the Navy's SEAL Team Six took part in an operation that killed terrorist leader Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan near Barawe in 2009, and then parachuted into Somalia last year in the dramatic rescue of American Jessica Buchanan and Dane Poul Hagen Thisted from Somali pirates.
So why Delta in Libya and SEAL Team Six in Somalia? The answer not only explains why JSOC's SEALs were thrust into the limelight as a result of their tasking to the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, but also helps to illustrate one of the ways in which special operations have been revolutionized in the wake of 9/11.
Immediately following the world-altering attacks in 2001, Delta Force's B Squadron was sent to Afghanistan to hunt key members of al Qaeda. It was relieved by A Squadron, who took part in the near-miss of bin Laden at Tora Bora in December of that year. However, before the unit's C Squadron got a turn, General Dell Daily, then commander of JSOC, sent a squadron from SEAL Team Six to represent JSOC on the ground in Afghanistan.
Daily was prescient in seeing the "War on Terror" as an almost endless battle, and in turn tried to prevent any unit from being overstretched or prematurely burnt out. What Daily failed to predict, however, was how that decision would negatively affect morale and further inflame preexisting rivalries and turf battles between the nation's most elite units.
Daily's successor at JSOC, Stanley McChrystal, took a decidedly different approach.
Under McChrystal, operations in the increasingly problematic Iraq War were ratcheted up to an unprecedented rate as JSOC hoped to turn the tide back in the coalition's favor. With numerous missions conducted on a nightly basis, some came to term JSOC's constant actions in Iraq as "industrial counterterrorism." While the label was meant to describe the frequency and regularity of the strike operations, it was not far from the mark psychologically.
McChrystal called on philosophies more commonly associated with the manufacturing sector to get his desired results. Oddly reminiscent of the "Total Quality Control" management techniques that Japanese firms leveraged to rapidly transform the nation into an economic power post-WWII — techniques since adopted around the world — McChrystal "gave" Iraq to Delta Force. He did so seeking to empower the officers and operators of Delta, promising them that no other unit would replace them as the primary Special Mission Unit in charge of the counterterror task force in Iraq until the war was won.
Given a sense of ownership, Delta took on the mentality that it was not simply a small cog in a much larger machine, but responsible for the overall outcome of the war. The unit's best and brightest were inspired and worked overtime as a result, taking on secondary roles in country even when their squadrons were technically off rotation. Uninterrupted, institutional knowledge continued to build and pay dividends, allowing Delta Force to spearhead the most intense special operations campaign the world had ever seen.
At the same time, McChrystal did the same for SEAL Team Six, giving it operational control of Afghanistan, and along with it, Pakistan. While a significantly less "glamorous" assignment at the time, as the Iraq War began to cool off (in large part due to Delta's success), the war in Afghanistan took on renewed importance. SEAL Team Six responded, conducting countless operations, including a handful of hostage rescues, and were famously assigned with taking down the most high-profile HVT imaginable — Osama bin Laden.
McChrystal's successors at JSOC followed his lead. Admiral William McRaven led JSOC when SEAL Team Six took out the al Qaeda emir in Abbottabad. He has since handed the reins over to Lt. General Joseph Votel, who has seemingly continued the trend, reportedly handing the Horn of Africa to SEAL Team Six while directing Delta Force to North Africa.
It's not always as clean or simplistic as that. Both units will occasionally conduct missions in the same general area if operational requirements demand it. Interservice politics no doubt continue to play a role at times as well, as do specialized skillsets that will occasionally give one unit the upper hand in securing a particular operation that may be better suited to its relative strengths.
However, ultimately, the same core concepts that have made Toyota a global powerhouse have also helped to allow JSOC's Special Mission Units to blossom into what many consider the most effective small unit fighting forces in the history of the world.